What’s the point of regret?

Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.

It is no surprise that Marino begins his essay with Kierkegaard, the founder of Existentialism, a type of philosophy that is squarely at odds with Stoicism. He then quotes the great 20th century moral philosopher Bernard Williams, who said that even when someone hurts another person without fault of their own, we still expect them to feel remorseful. Consider, for instance, the case of a man who drives a truck and that ends up running over a child who unexpectedly crossed the street at the last minute. Even though it is appropriate to comfort the driver, Williams says, “it is important that this is seen as something that should need to be done, and indeed some doubt would be felt about a driver who too blandly or readily moved to [a] position [of comfort].” Perhaps, but so far this is just a description of what some (perhaps most) people would do, not an actual ethical argument.

Interestingly, Marino contrasts Williams’ take with that of Spinoza — a philosopher who was very much sympathetic to the Stoic school of thought — who “reasoned that remorse and repentance are pernicious intoxicants that interfere with our understanding.” Indeed, even Nietzsche, despite being closer to the Existentialists than to the Stoics, called remorse “adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”

Marino disagrees, stating that “We can learn to let things go, but before we let them go, we have to let regret get hold of us.” But why, exactly?

He goes on in this vein: “As Freud and Kierkegaard taught, we always have to consider the affect, the mood with which an idea is expressed, in order to begin to comprehend the meaning that the idea has for us. The memory that the Vietnam vet bounced out of the pool was not of that backward boastful sort, it was a beach ball of sorrow. I suspect that he was a better person for having mulled over and hung his head for his behavior than he would have been had he resolved — what’s done is done and never thought about it again.”

And: “Kierkegaard observed that you don’t change God when you pray, you change yourself. Perhaps it is the same with regret. I can’t rewind and expunge my past actions, but perhaps I change who I am in my act of remorse.”

Concluding: “Henry David Thoreau advised: ‘Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.’ To live afresh is to be morally born again.”

Perhaps, but none of the above amounts to a philosophical argument. It is, in fact, little more than a string of quotations from favorite writers, some of whom have little credibility left in the 21st century (like Freud, see also chapter 17 of my book on the philosophy of pseudoscience).

The closest Marino comes to it is when he claims that remorse about past actions perhaps can change who we are, presumably so that we learn from our mistakes and see to it that we don’t repeat them. Moreover, his contrast to a rather casual “what’s done is done and never thought about it again” type of attitude seems to imply that he doesn’t think a cognitive approach is sufficient here, one needs to be emotionally distraught.

The Stoics had an altogether different take. Negative emotions, such as regret, were classed as pathê, negative passions, and therefore unhealthy. These were to be contrasted with positive passions named eupatheiai, which are described by Martha Nussbaum (in The Therapy of Desire, 1994, p. 398) as “motivations that will help [the agent] steer her way among things indifferent.” Famously, the goal of Stoic practice was to achieve apatheia, a word that can be interpreted either as freedom from the (negative!) passions or, more properly, as equanimity, a dispassionate (but not apathetic in the modern sense of the word!) attitude toward events.

The idea, then, insofar as regret is concerned, is that we ought to learn from past events, including of course, our mistakes. But we should do this with equanimity, without indulging in feelings of guilt that don’t actually do any work other than make us feel bad about something that cannot be changed.

That latter observation — the unchangeability of the past — is of course yet another application of the Stoic dichotomy of control so prevalent in Epictetus: what has already happened is not under our control, but our current actions are. So we should focus in the here and now, where our power of agency is actually effective, not dwell onto something that is now permanently outside of our reach:

“Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything which is not our own doing.” (Enchiridion, 1)

The Stoic argument against regret, then, is that: I) it interferes with our attempts to achieve apatheia; and II) it ignores the dichotomy of control, instantiated in this particular case by the fact that the past is outside of our control.

None of this, however, should be construed as the Stoic not caring about having made mistakes, or not wanting to learn from his mistakes in order to avoid future ones. Here is Seneca on this specific point:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events?” (On Anger, III.36.)

Going back to two of Marino’s examples, the truck driver who accidentally killed the child has no cause for regret, not only because he cannot change what happened, but also because, in Williams’ hypothetical scenario, he actually had no fault whatsoever. So there is also nothing for him to learn here, except the fact that the universe sometimes throws really bad stuff at us. It is perfectly human for the driver to feel for the loss of a young life, of course, but shame, guilt and the like are inappropriate, regardless of what the rest of society thinks.

As for the Vietnam veteran, we are not told what he actually did. If he carried out morally questionable or downright wrong actions then he ought to reflect on them, understand why he did them, and wow to do better in the future. Should he be able to somehow ameliorate the effects of what he did, for instance by some kind of reparation or apology to the victims of his actions, then he ought to do so. But simply wallowing in negative feelings will neither correct anything nor improve him as a human being, regardless of what Thoreau or Freud might have thought.

There is one more Stoic angle on regret. In a sense, to regret something is to keep talking to yourself about how bad you have been, making a constant argument that you should feel sad or ashamed or something along those lines. But as Marcus reminds us, Stoicism is about action, not words:

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Meditations, X.16)

So stop regretting whatever you can no longer change and go out there to do some good. There is a lot of need for it.

22 thoughts on “What’s the point of regret?

  1. It sounds like stoicism would advise acknowledging our past mistakes without carrying the destructive emotional burden that would regret implies. Personally, I really like this perspective, but I can definitely understand how others would view this as almost sociopathic to some degree. We have a culture where, unless remorse is explicitly shown (and often dwelled upon), people are viewed as uncaring and selfish. It’s as if we expect people to feel regret over the mistakes they’ve made, irregardless of whether or not that regret is actually beneficial to them.

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  2. I think there is a difference here between questions of philosophy, and questions of psychological fact. Regret for a past action can lead to feelings of personal inadequacy, restricting one’s capacity for action and growth; not good. But it can also motivate a desire to remedy or compensate where possible, and to learn everything that can be learnt from the episode, including what there is to be learnt about one’s own limitations. I would argue that the discomfort associated with feelings of regret should not be rejected until one is satisfied that all of this has been done to the extent possible. And even then, the residue or at least the memory of our discomfort can provide useful emotional warnings in analogous future situations.

    There may be some who, having acquired the necessary wisdom, can safely reject the emotion. I do not aspire so high.

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  3. Regret is both humbling and destabilizing. It is different from the pain of placing our hand on a hot stove, which we can promptly alleviate. Rather, regret takes residence, suggesting that it might have some important messages to convey.

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  4. Miles,

    I take your point about Stoic advice sounding sociopathic, but the Stoics themselves referred to their approach as a philosophy of love. The idea was to control negative / destructive emotions so that we can focus on the positive ones, and to use reason as our primary guidance, regardless of what the rest of society says.

    Paul,

    I do aspire to be a good Stoic, that doesn’t mean I succeed…

    Daniel,

    Just because a particular type of feeling “takes residence” it doesn’t mean it’s good. People may let their anger fester, for instance, but that’s not a good thing.

    While regret does have a positive potential to make us work toward both learning from the past and repairing our wrongs, I don’t think it is necessary for either. And it can get in the way of both, becoming a self-indulgent and paralyzing response.

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  5. The veteran used his trivial power to become an armed robber, that is part of who he is. And it is a part of him which will always be true. A painful truth. Modern stoicism as I see it claims the clock resets every 24 hour period – regret, grief, shame, whatever. I see no evidence that our animal/primate past can operate that way. Coming to terms with painful events requires time. Psychology, religions, philosophy, sages and gurus offer paths past pain and grief. Denial does not seem to be a solution in my experience.

    Who we are incorporates what we have done and experienced. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner. I have suggested to people coming to terms with the past that it is not forgetting, it is not denying. Rather it is becoming stronger.

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  6. I tend to agree with Paul, above. I wonder if it is possible to be virtuous absent any sense of shame whatsoever. Seneca uses the words shame or shameful about 150 times (I used the search function in my kindle), and not always negatively. Several times he says things along the lines of “At least he had the decency to feel ashamed of his behavior, which gives us hope.” You first need to become aware of the fact that you’ve acted wrongly. While a rational resolution is optimal from a Stoic perspective, our rational minds can be remarkably obtuse when it comes to recognizing our own faults. A pang of shame can perform this alerting function, aiding our reason by capturing our attention with a big red light that says “Stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about. Here is something you really must attend to.” Shame is a problem when it persists without leading to a rational resolution of your behaviour and interferes with the proper conduct of the rest of your life.

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  7. Robin,

    Stoicism doesn’t attempt to reset the clock every 24hr which, as you say, would be impossible. The Stoics works constantly to get a better grip on his emotions and to cultivate his reasoning faculty. It is an ongoing process.

    As for Faulkner’s idea that the past is never dead, my response would be that it should be, if it only drains mental energy that takes away from the urgent task of living.

    Marco,

    The relationship between existentialism and Stoicism is a complex one, hopefully I’ll address it explicitly soon. Meanwhile, however, just think of Nietzsche’s rejection of Stoicism as a starting point.

    Ron,

    But shame is not at all the same as regret. I can be ashamed of having done something wrong, reflect on it, and resolve to amend things and to not repeat the mistake. Regret seems a way to indulge on something that cannot be changed.

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  8. There are two kinds of regret, moral and functional. I may regret a wrong I have committed or I may regret some act which is not moral in itself. In the first case(moral regret) I may, for example, regret the harm I caused someone and in the second case(functional regret) I may, as another example, regret my failure to seize a business opportunity.

    Both kinds of regret require closure. The cause must be examined, the lessons learned, the response determined so that one can move on to deal with life, as a stronger, wiser person. That is a healthy response and Stoics are especially good at doing this.. Moral wrongs require additionally an interior examination, consisting of, an admission of wrong, then remorse, repentance and finally reparation(where possible). What is left at the end of this process is a residue of regret. This residual regret has largely been drained of its emotion and is now, in the main, cognitive regret. It remains as a warning flag, a reminder of wrongs that should be avoided. This is healthy regret. It is no longer a controlling emotion that distorts or disturbs the present. It is instead a useful emotion that informs the present so that one makes better choices for the future.

    Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt.

    Your definition resembles pathological regret which is the consequence of failure to reach closure.

    Someone who feels no regret lacks moral capacity, is blind to his wrongs and has no insight into his behaviour. Regret, of the kind I have described, is a beacon that shows a person’s capacity for moral feelings and shows an awareness of moral shortcomings. From this point of view it is a healthy indicator.

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  9. You have stated my own position, but with considerably more clarity.

    I am enough of an adaptationist to look for a function in every emotion, and much wisdom may be needed in deciding just when an emotion should be de-fanged.

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  10. The glorification of regret is part of a modern superstition, that how you feel about a thing is just as important as what you do about it. I suspect it arises from a pseudo-mystical belief that wanting a thing somehow brings it closer to reality and vice-versa. Call it a relaxed view toward the principle of cause and effect. In the real world, I want a thing, I do something effective about it, I may have my desired outcome. Modern thinking doesn’t require the middle step; it assumes the first achieves the last as cause achieves effect.

    If you believe in this superstition, regret is a moral obligation of all good people. A person who does not demonstrate regret is foregoing the opportunity to use desire to nullify the deplorable events of the past. Failing to regret is a sin of inaction, allowing a negative history to stand unopposed.

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  11. I’ve read this post and the comments and it is still unclear to me what conclusions to draw. How can any emotion be negative or positive? Surely, what matters is what we do with the emotion, what actions it spurs. Is that not what taking control of our emotions entail? Not that we are free from them, but that we incorporate them into our aspirations for a good life. The emotions are never “needed” in a formal sense here, since reason should in principle suffice (except for ultimately being a slave to the passions of course😉 ), but the title “What’s the point of regret?” is then meaningless. And I agree, in the example where the bad thing happened by a complete accident, regret is unwarranted (and this is the context of this post), but nevertheless, there are real time examples where we may be culpable to doing harm or missed opportunities, and regret may be positive feeling in spurring our transformations towards wisdom, or it could be a negative emotion trapping us in a negative spiral of passivity…

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  12. ToT,

    You are absolutely right: regret is an emotion, and as such we have no control over it. What we do have control over is whether we give or withdraw assent to/from it. The Stoic position would be to withdraw it.

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  13. ToT,
    The emotions are never “needed” in a formal sense here, since reason should in principle suffice

    Emotions are an ineradicable part of our nature so to speak of needing them is beside the point. They are simply there and they perform an important role in motivating behaviour.

    Reason, our central decision maker, is advised by intuition, emotion and cognition. It will listen to all three voices, the ‘aha’ voice of intuition, the compelling voice of emotion and the calm facts of cognition.

    Reason, by itself, is never sufficient. It needs the advice of the intuitive, emotional and cognitive voices, seeking a balance between these competing voices.

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  14. Massimo,
    regret is an emotion, and as such we have no control over it. What we do have control over is whether we give or withdraw assent

    That sounds so simple, withdraw or give assent. But when one is in the grip of unendurable feelings of inconsolable grief, profound regret or indelible shame, how does one withdraw assent. These emotions are not simple things that obediently withdraw on hearing the incantation ‘I withdraw assent’. These emotions are deeply rooted, hardy plants. They are an invasive species that take over the mind. Some anodyne words are hardly the answer.

    Can the Stoic philosopher really treat this patient or is this the domain of the specialist therapist?

    I am sympathetic to Stoic philosophy so I am not as cynical or disbelieving as that sounds. What I think happens is this. The practice of Stoic philosophy hardens and toughens the mind. It learns to exercise greater control over the emotions. It inculcates resilience and hardiness. And then when the Stoic is exposed to great tests he is prepared, hardened and trained to cope.

    As a consequence, telling the trained, hardened Stoic to withdraw assent is perfectly reasonable advice that he will understand and successfully practice. For the remainder this advice is incomprehensible and unrealisable.

    And this raises a bigger question. Is reading and studying Stoic philosophy a sufficient preparation? Can I ever become an expert craftsman merely by studying the craft literature? If not, how does the aspiring Stoic philosopher prepare himself for the grave tests that will one day come his way? Legalising marijuana is certainly not going to help.🙂

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  15. Labnut,

    You make good points, but the Stoic answer is going to be the same as you’d get from a Christian or a Buddhist: a combination of reflection and practice, the latter aided by engaging like minded people.

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  16. Massimo,
    thanks for your reply. Unfortunately that only touches on the subject in the broadest way. My life experiences make me think this is a truly important question that needs to be developed further.

    Physical resilience is developed by incremental exposure to physical stresses. This can be done in a controlled way and endurance running is a perfect example of this. But the same approach can’t ordinarily be done with emotional stress, except in a highly controlled environment. I did have one boss who tried to do this but he was fired for ‘psychological terrorism’.

    In Roman times daily life was sufficiently challenging that the Stoic philosopher had ample opportunity to learn emotional resilience from his everyday experience of life. He was constantly challenged by hardship, pain, threat and loss. In that environment Stoic philosophy would have made perfect sense. But today we have become entitled, vulnerable, thin skinned animals, protected from harm, and thus denied the opportunities to develop emotional resilience. When real harm does come our way it finds us unprepared. The nature of the harm is also different.

    Instead of learning emotional resilience from incremental exposure to stress we must try new approaches. The key question is this – can a process of cognitive preparation substitute for exposure to real stress as a means of developing emotional resilience?

    A lot of companies are betting that this can be done and they supply programmes for developing emotional resilience. The results are mixed and I remain unconvinced. Some companies combine this with physical stress in the belief in the belief that the effects are transitive. In other words the process of coping with physical stress builds emotional resilience. Endurance runners will agree with this.

    The US Army has an interesting programme for developing emotional resilience, Master Resilience Training in the U.S. Army, http://bit.ly/2fTWpjM, authored, by among other people, Martin Seligman. It is based on the Adversity-Beliefs-Consequences model which would sound very familiar to a Stoic🙂 The article is a nice overview of the subject.

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  17. There is one more Stoic angle on regret. In a sense, to regret something is to keep talking to yourself about how bad you have been, making a constant argument that you should feel sad or ashamed or something along those lines.

    This is the most important thing you have said in your essay. It is the well known problem of rumination which is central to regret, anxiety and depression. It is interesting to examine why this should be so. We make sense of life by linking our episodic memories into a continuous narrative thread. These narrative threads, woven together, make up the fabric of our life. In the normal course of events, each thread is terminated and so does not continually intrude into our consciousness. Certain threads are not terminated satisfactorily with the result that they continue to intrude in the conscious mind resulting in obsessive thought or rumination. Some symptoms of this are regret, anxiety, despair, grief or depression.

    The harmful narrative thread must be terminated so that it no longer intrudes as an irritant in the conscious mind, but how?

    Change the narrative.
    Narrative psychology constructs new, more satisfactory narratives, to replace the harmful narratives, ones that can be naturally closed so that they no longer intrude in the conscious mind. This is a process of reinterpreting the events.
    Displace the narrative.
    Create new and rewarding narratives that displace the painful narratives form the conscious mind. For example “So stop regretting whatever you can no longer change and go out there to do some good“. Re-direct attention to purpose and to sources of gratitude, joy or awe.
    Cap the narrative.
    Strive for equanimity, remind oneself of the dichotomy of control and unchangeability of the past. As Massimo said, “What we do have control over is whether we give or withdraw assent ” Re-direct thoughts away from the painful narrative. It will terminate when starved of attention.
    Prevent the narrative.
    The Stoic process of daily examination prevents harmful narratives from taking hold and this is probably the most important single thing that can be done. The Jesuit practice of the Daily Examen is another way of doing this. This is interesting for its emphasis on finding sources of gratitude and awe which neutralise harmful narratives.

    Resilient people have learned to cope with the events as they unfold and they have learned to create healthy narratives from these events.

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  18. Labnut,

    You are referring to a discussion over at Footnotes to Plato, right? I don’t think there is any strong emotion against essentialism, it is just a notion that no longer has any purchase in either science or philosophy of science. And little to do with Stoicism too.

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